Privacy when receiving mental health treatment: My tired theme of professional boundaries with a new twist of opening up a little

I’m still dealing with figuring out what to do with my therapy situation. Things with therapist #28 are still not working and I’ve given it beyond what I think is a fair chance. I think I might have generated a working plan, but first a little about stuff that happened in between.

I opened up a little and surprised myself

My academic advisor met with me this week and asked if I was okay. I tried at first to give a vague, ‘there’s a problem but I’m fixing it’ type response but ended up sobbing in her office. I’m shocked with myself about how much I said. In reality I actually provided very little information but it was far more information than I’ve shared with anyone who knows me academically or professionally. I shared that I am having trouble with my new therapist, that I had a confidentiality issue in the past and alluded to a problem of firing therapists and having gone through a lot of therapists. For those who have maybe not read other posts in my blog, that is a giant thing for me to share. I shared nothing about the specifics of my psychopathology, but shared about the extent to which I have received treatment. This is something I don’t talk about with people.

I’m so concerned about keeping personal and professional separate. I realized this was the first time I ever talked to someone who is part of my professional work about this dilemma of treatment vs privacy and boundaries. Of course I’ve talked to my therapists about it, but the issue never quite sinks in properly. They are in my field but not my exact professional context. They also can’t fully understand my concerns about confidentiality because they all think they they personally would never do anything to compromise it. They lose the bigger picture somehow.

Confidentiality and risk

It was helpful to hear my advisor validate that confidentiality breaches are a thing that happen even though people don’t like to talk about it. It makes me realize how much of my therapy (even my good therapy) over the past 6 years has put the problem on me (for my reaction to it) and pushed aside the reality that it is a thing that occurs. It hasn’t necessarily been denied, but it has certainly been sidestepped. Certainly my reaction is excessive, I won’t deny that. But I am also reacting to a real risk, even if my response to that risk is too big. In a way I wonder how much of this sidestepping is a process that makes me feel more like I need to respond dramatically. If everyone else is sidestepping it then it is all on me to protect myself from it since no one else is handling it.

I want to put an example of this into another context. Suppose someone had a snake phobia. Let’s say everyone around this person loves snakes. Some even have pet snakes. Everyone is telling the person with the snake phobia that their reaction is out of proportion with the situation. But some snakes can be dangerous. Not always, but it is a possibility. It might even be hard to distinguish between safe ones and unsafe ones. So this environment might make the person with the phobia even more likely to take excessive measures for safety. On the other hand if people acknowledge risks but instead teach the person how to identify types of snakes and how to handle risky situations should they arise it could create support and provide tools to deal with real risks in a way that is appropriate to the situation.

I had this realization that for all the time I’ve talked about privacy concerns in therapy. No one had ever before talked to me about realistic suggestions to manage real risk. Both of confidentiality and of simple professional boundaries (I can’t be in therapy with a professor who teaches in my program for example). I think everyone has been so scared of introducing more ways for me to avoid risks that no one has helped me assess how to handle the risks that really do exist. Most fears have some kernel of reality behind them. It’s part of how they are maintained. But something about my anxiety being so connected to the process of therapy I think has made people respond to it differently than they might with other types of anxiety.

It was wonderful to share a little about that with someone who is really able to get the context I am working within. And it was nice to get some empathy about how difficult it can be and perspective on an approach I may have been overlooking. She said some things I have heard from other people but those things cary more weight when said by someone who is in my context.

Unexpectedly helpful

The conversation also really highlighted how bad things are with #28. My interaction with my advisor was this beautiful interaction with a mix of validation and goal directed conversation interspersed with appropriate humor and joking.  On some level I feel very guilty for letting this bleed into my professional life. My advisor is a therapist but not my therapist. But she basically did far more to help me in 15-20 minutes that my actual therapist has done in the past month. The conversation made me think about some things in new ways and reflecting on it has helped me generate some new possible solutions to me problem.

I need to make sure I keep our professional boundaries in place, but it’s good to know that I maybe don’t need to be as scared if the mask of normality I hide behind slips a little sometimes in her presence.

The new plan

It’s taken several days for some of the conversation with my advisor to sink in fully enough to help me generate a new plan. I am not sure if my plan will work. But having a plan is giving me that glimmer of hope that I need.

Something clicked for me last night after searching for hours for a psychiatrist and not finding anyone who met my criteria.  I finally came up with a plan. My plan (which may not work at all) is PsyDs and maybe social workers. To those of you who have said this to me a millions times, I’m sorry for not giving it much weight. My conversation with my advisor shifted my perspective a bit which made me feel like this is more of an option than I had considered before. I am going to ask #28 to do med management. I really do not like her, but I can suck it up and tolerate her for a once a month meeting for a script. The key to my plan is her going along with this. If she does not then it falls apart. Assuming she cooperates, I have made a list of 3 possible therapists (1 psyd and 2 social workers) who seem like they could work out. I know it seems like a simple, maybe obvious solution, but I had been so stuck on psychiatrists.

I wrote a paragraph here trying to explain why I had been so stuck with psychiatrists, but it was very convoluted and overgeneralized a lot of professional degrees unfairly so I deleted it. It was really my rationalizations for something else. The simplest shortest answer is I have been trying to replicate my relationship with SM (a psychiatrist) and have been stuck on this idea that it will be more likely to occur with other psychiatrists.

My process of therapist searching

Trying to find a new therapist is a scary process. This is separate from pure professional concerns as it also includes the general vulnerability of sharing so much with someone new and the power they wield to hurt me. The process of finding one is difficult. The databases to search just do not have the information needed. Some of this is basic information (like populations served) but also there is the issue of personality match. There is nothing that can estimate if the therapist will be a good personality match. Can someone make an okcupid alternative for therapists? Have the therapists respond to questions about their therapy style, theoretical orientation and populations treated. Then clients can anonymously fill out a survey on symptoms, need in a therapy relationship and desired course of action. Then get a list of match percentages.

No one would ever want the liability. And I suppose most patients don’t know what they want until they’ve seen some who they know are what they don’t want. I can dream though.

Before my decision to branch out to clinicians other than psychiatrists my search was not going well.

I went through the entire psychiatrist data base for my insurance.

I google every therapist before considering seeing them.

Things that make me feel uncomfortable seeing someone or indicate other problems:

  • At least 2 had their license suspended in the past and reinstated. One of whom the reason for suspension was very scary and google searches indicated that this person has some really distorted body image issues (think professional photo on websites being scarily over-photoshopped). Obviously will skip those ones.

My insurance does not let me search by anything other than location and ability to prescribe. This is a problem because it means wading through tons of people who are not options because I am not the type of person they work with. This is a common problem with insurance. They make their list look bigger because they don’t give specific search terms. Also anyone who had multiple offices got listed multiple times. For some academics this meant being listed as many as 5 times because each title they had somehow generated them an extra entry in the database.

  • A ton of the list was of people who only meet with children
  • A bunch of people upon google searches clearly only handle one type of problem (e.g. Sleep)

Then we get into reviews on doctor sites. I don’t weigh the ones that are just numbers highly. Like 3/5 stars is meaningless to me. But the sites that have comments can have important and scary information. I obviously take comments with a grain of salt, but there are different types of negative comments out there.

  • If a lot of people have billing disputes that says something about the doctor’s priorities
  • I use those comments more to identify problems than identify strengths because I am wary of astroturfing
  • If the complaint seems very convoluted or is an ethics complaint that somehow was not made to an official ethics board I am skeptical of it unless there seems to be a pattern or evidence

I look on linkedin

  • How many degrees away is this person from me? I’ve decided that 3rd degree is okay (so many people are 3rd degree connections I would rule out almost everyone). But 2nd degree connection is too close.
  • For 3rd degree connections the people who know people who know the clinician also give me some information about the clinician and their connection to me. If it’s through a lot of academics that makes me more nervous. But if it’s through some of my non-researcher connections that’s less of an issue.
  • I can also estimate their theoretical orientation is they are a 3rd degree connection based on which people I know who are connected to someone they know.

I look on their website if they have one

  • I read any new patient forms they have and any policy forms. I found a ton of people with very hard nosed policies listed on their websites. Things like fees to fill out forms. That’s their first impression to new patients. I understand wanting to make the context clear but there’s a balance. Your website is your first impression. Yes people should be informed of your policies. But if your entire first impression is telling people rules and financial penalties for breaking them this makes me concerned about what it is like to interact with you. I have never no-showed an appointment (I had 2 travel related issues but these were largely outside of my control. In 11 years of therapy 2 missed appointments is pretty good) intentionally. Even if I am unhappy with the therapy I at least show up to the appointment. I don’t do any less than 24 hours cancelations. But when I see extensively detailed policies (I’m talking pages) about missed sessions it puts me on edge. Even though it is not a thing I will do, it concerns me about what this says about the therapist as a person. It makes the therapist look inflexible and cold.
  • I also find it very scary when there are detailed history forms to fill out before the first session. Some history forms can be useful I think, but there’s a line and it concerns me when the quantity of information I’d be asked to provide on a form before even meeting the person is too high. Basic demographics, presenting problem, medications, history of hospitalization, past diagnoses, fine. But there is a point where it is asking too much.
  • I’m noticing a new trend of younger therapist’s having social media policies on their website. I really like this a lot. It makes the boundaries clear and shows that the therapist is adapting to the changing world. The good ones I’ve seen explain what the therapist will and won’t do along with the reasons for it. I also like when the state that they will not look up their clients online unless it is due to an immediate safety concern. Things like this need to be spelled out and can be done in a way that is not authoritarian.

I look at the context of where the person is working. Big medical centers make me nervous.

  • This is where the line between my realistic worrys and unrealistic ones is blurry.
  • I don’t like the idea of going to therapy in a place using EMRs. I want my therapy notes and session dates on paper in a locked file cabinet. If they go on a computer I don’t want the database linked in a way that makes it part of a larger medical record. So, a private practice clinician could use a full disk encrypted computer for notes and records and I would be okay with that as long as it isn’t merged into another database. EMRs are great for some things, like saving me the trouble of needing to know when my last tetnus shot was because an ER doc already has it in the record. But with therapy is can mean things from bad therapy could stick with me even after that therapy has terminated. A diagnosis, a misunderstanding. It can follow me.
  • Going to a session at a big medical center means more people to walk past. I have a greater chance of running into someone unexpected who would then figure out I am there for therapy.
  • I do not know what my future practicum sites will be but it is fair to say any big medical centers might be on the table. I don’t want to feel uncomfortable applying somewhere in the future because of this.

Smaller therapy organizations that emphasize multidisciplinary teams also make me nervous.

  • I know that this is code for the fact that they will regularly review cases with each other and this is confirmed in privacy notice paperwork about who get’s access to what.
  • This means that in going to a place like that, instead of just sharing my information with one therapist I am agreeing to share my information with the whole practice. It may be 6 people or so, but it means losing control over my information.

I search through my gmail for the person’s name.

  • I make sure I don’t have any indication that this person is too closely connected with my work.

I check academic and professional affiliations

  • If they have an academic title at my school this is a problem. I am moving towards being more flexible if they only teach areas far removed from me, but it’s still hard to predict.
  • If they work closely with faculty at my school but do not work there this is also a problem

Through these criteria every single psychiatrist on my insurance list was ruled out.

Now that I’ve opened my search to non-psychiatrists I have options to pick from. So feeling more hopeful. But I guess I wanted to share my search process. I have this odd situation where if I had a patient (don’t have those yet) who needed a referral, I could easily generate a list of good clinicians who I know professionally. But for myself I struggle because all of these great clinicians I know are not options for me because I know them in a professional context.

I’d be curious to see how other people search for therapists. Feel free to share in the comments.

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3 thoughts on “Privacy when receiving mental health treatment: My tired theme of professional boundaries with a new twist of opening up a little

  1. I totally understand why you would want to look for a psychiatrist, as your most successful work was done with SM. I think though that it is great you are broadening your horizons. Hopefully it will give you a chance to explore more options. Plus, in my experience, psychiatrists are terrible at doing therapy. It’s likely that a psychologist or social worker will be better suited to what you’re looking for. Good luck with your search!

    Reply
  2. I read your backstory and am SO sorry about what happened to you! I think that therapist’s licensing board would have had a similar opinion. I have seen one case where a mental health provider lost his ability to practice because of the harm he caused to a client I knew. I hope you find good, solid help that you can trust. Again, I’m sorry you had that experience.

    Reply
    • I’m past the time limit for an APA complaint not sure about the state licensing board. It’s certainly something I’ve thought about a lot. I have no indication that it is part of a larger pattern of behavior (he no longer works at my old school and is only in private practice now) so I don’t have reason to be concerned that he is doing this to other people. At this point I think the stress making a complaint would cause me is not worth it. I would only make one at this point if he somehow did something new to harm me.

      Reply

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